The Capital Grille, Washington DC.

October 2014.

This self-important very traditional restaurant came highly recommended after I failed to be thrilled by steakhouses in Chicago which was supposed to be the beef capital of the universe. My brother-in-law said I wouldn’t believe the atmosphere. You walk in the door and on the left is a glass cooler full of aging sections of beef. On the right you see lockers of vintage booze emblazoned with names like Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. Most authentic place in the world.

Well, those two features are there, but they have obviously been upgraded since brother-in-law Paul was there so you don’t quite get the exclusive club feeling I was imagining and I’m sure he experienced. The lockers have false-metallic plastic labels and names that evoke law firms rather than senators. I made my reservation in person wearing jeans and a golf shirt and nobody batted an eye. I was kind of hoping the maitre d’ would look me up and down and insist I arrive next day in jacket and tie.

There was no room at dinner so I went for lunch, and I was by myself. I pre-drank a big beer at a bar around the corner to try and keep my wine cost reasonable. The waiter was a mature Spanish-American, friendly and businesslike. He asked the right questions quickly, made good eye contact, and was completely respectful and efficient. He participated in recommending wines by the glass, and brought the food promptly but not so quickly that I worried they were hurrying me out of there, never mind the place wasn’t really that full for lunch.

I figured it made sense to aim at the middle of the target so I had smoked salmon and a sirloin steak. I took a good look at the filet mignons but reckoned that they might be too lean. The salmon was lovely as it usually is and the accompaniment of a very crisp triangular savory cookie, capers, and chopped white onions with a pretty straight-ahead mayo variation were delicious. There is usually for me an “I’m starving” magnification of the quality of every first course and this was no exception. Probably really just a respectably well-above-average smoked salmon plate.

The beef came, and it was a long narrow steak with a vertebra and rib bone. I had ordered it rare because server Manuel seemed to believe that medium-rare was going to be red in the middle but grey on the outer thirds. Rare turned out to be cold in the middle, but I was surprised that this didn’t bother me. The meat was very tender and fairly flavorful, but only fairly. There was a good rind of fat, but I’ve had better-tasting beef grilled at home, sourced from Costco or the expensive Kerrisdale butcher we sometimes still use. Here if you just order the steak that’s all you get on the plate so I requested sauteed spinach and got a big metal pan of wilted spinach, no salt, not much butter, no pepper, but nicely cooked.

Beside me sat an older middle-aged couple from Oklahoma. She told me that her boss had recommended the place as the best steak he’d ever eaten, but hubby was obviously skeptical, no doubt for reasons that had nothing at all to do with the food. Predictably once they had tasted things I think their verdict was split.

The choice of wines by the glass numbered about a dozen whites and three dozen reds. Nothing to extend your yoga stretch over. The wine list was reasonably long and respectable, but nowhere near as wild as I’ve seen in some other not-especially-fabulous places. My pre-tip bill for one person with two glasses of their upper-end wine was $100 US even.

Small but significant letdown. The clubbiness was only skin deep, and the food was very nice but no better than the atmosphere. Where are the great old steakhouses? Do you have to be flown in by private plane to some billionaire’s lodge in the Adirondacks to get the best beef in the world? No idea, but I’m still looking. Food 7.8. Service 8.0. Ambience 7.9. Value 6.5.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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